Questioning Why I Share My 'Intimate' Mental Illness Story
In therapy today I started talking about this blog and how I want people to know I have a mental illness without having them treat me like I have a mental illness. Then, my counselor asked me why I want people to know at all. It wasn’t accusatory. I think she genuinely wanted me to introspect since so many other people deal with their mental illnesses in silence. The question caught me off guard because I usually have a nice, carefully curated answer for every therapy-type question, but I sat there in silence for what felt like an eternity. And then it hit me.
The pride that accompanied reaching higher level of introspection and self-awareness was quickly followed by, “oh shit.” It was like my brain reaching into its deep recesses and finally pulling out an answer that was on the tip of my tongue, but instead of useless trivia, I discovered another contributing factor to the unhealthy perceptions of my interpersonal relationships.
This one felt the most pervasive: more than wanting to individualize myself while still fitting in, more than wanting to come across like I don’t care what people think of me while mentally scrambling to make good first impressions, more than being scared of having my identity wrapped up in mental illness, more than hating the thought of being pitied or feared, more than isolating myself out of fear of initiating social interactions, more than believing people feel as if they need to treat me with emotional kid gloves, more than taking everything people say personally, and more than thinking all my friends will spontaneously quit liking me once they finally internalize how “crazy” I think I am.
It also explains why I want to tell people about my mental illnesses without having them treat me or think of me any differently. I want it to be casual – a piece of small talk that simultaneously allows people to know the most personal thing about me. Yeah, I’m definitely one of those people who falls in love with everyone who listens to me talk about myself for more than three minutes only to completely forget about them once I stop pursuing further contact our of fear of rejection because of my previous over-sharing.
Honestly, I have no clue when I’m over-sharing. I can only retroactively gauge it by people’s facial expressions or, “Oh man, I’m so sorry,” responses. Then I’m like, “No, man, I thought we were just chatting!” But it’s too late. At this point, I’m simultaneously embarrassed and hopeful I’ve reached a new level of intimacy with the person. But then they don’t reciprocate the sharing. It’s like I’m blindly throwing darts, just hoping one will hit the “connection” bulls-eye. That’s not to say I don’t have friends who really do understand me and vice versa, but even my need to throw that out there is an attempt to steer people’s perception of me in the direction in which I want it to go. “Look at all these problems I have, but also look at how normal my life is.” Know me, but know the “me” I want you to know.
So I guess that’s the other part of false intimacy – not only sharing personal things casually but also curating a version of myself with which I want people to connect. I don’t think I’m “fake” by any means, but I do think I have a tendency to give people the impression that I’ve just shared something really personal when I haven’t… because I doctor up that vulnerability to the point that it really isn’t. No wonder I don’t know when I’m over-sharing. The things I say sound personal, but to me, they are carefully curated to be casual enough that I don’t care if everyone knows, which is probably why people are caught off guard and either thank me for being so open or look at me like, “Wait, did she mean to tell me that?” Then again, I’m hyperaware of body language, facial expressions, and tones of voice because of my social anxiety. When I apologize, people say they don’t care what I tell them, so I should probably stop reading into things so much. But I guess I’m more concerned with my thinking I’m closer to people than I actually am and people’s thinking I’m being more honest with them than I actually am. Anyway…
I even get that response to this blog. “Thank you for being honest.” That’s when I’m like, “Wait, did I even say something that warranted such a response?” I can delude myself into thinking I’m vulnerable though. Then, I get confused when I don’t feel close to anyone to whom I’ve told all this personal stuff. That’s where I get worried about being remembered as the “crazy girl.” It gives me pause when I realize how tangled my web of creating a space for people to share about mental illness, wanting a sense of intimacy with would-be friends and already friends, and unwittingly letting myself be identified by my mental illness really is. I guess that’s why I’m not scared my friends will only see me as the “crazy girl.” I know they know me way better than to think that. It’s only the people with whom I’ve imagined a deeper connection that I worry will only think of me as “crazy” once the idealized versions of my relationships with them start to dissolve (i.e., We never really see each other or really desire to see each other, for that matter).
So when I tell people about my mental illness, it’s less a feeling of comfort and more a feeling of “OK, what’s next on the small talk list” as if I’m walking around with a brace on my ankle and in passing, telling people how I injured it when I feel down the stairs after a night out. The aspects of my mental illness I share just aren’t a big deal – like, literally just saying the word “depressed.” If that seems vulnerable, this might be more of a semantics issue than anything.
I do, however, like creating the illusion of vulnerability. It gives me a sense of power over the conversation when I tend to feel totally helpless in all social interactions. To not retreat into my timid, lonely inner child, I have to author a new narrative and let that be how people identify me. So telling people I have bipolar disorder after a few drinks, in makeup and an outfit that makes me feel comfortable, and turning it into an ironic joke while making the “it’s no big deal” hand gesture is my narrative. Letting people recommend sad movies to me and talking to them in a jokingly philosophical way about the void is my narrative. Making playlists entitled “depressed shit” and “hypomanic AF” is my narrative. That’s the “me” I want people to know, and it isn’t fake. It’s just not the whole story, but when I delude myself while making people believe it is, that’s where the false sense of intimacy comes into play.
No wonder I feel rejected by people with whom I wasn’t even friends in the first place. Obviously, I don’t want everyone to know every single about me. That’s not the point. I just want to convince myself that sharing with people the aspects of my mental illness that are, in my mind, equivalent to small talk isn’t intimacy, vulnerability, or honesty. It’s a casual conversation that, in a way, I do hope eliminates the taboo of mental illness, but that’s not why I do it. It’s just a byproduct.
So thanks to everyone who listens and/or reads, but don’t think I’ve divulged my inner secrets to you. Thank me if you want, but don’t think it was a particularly emotionally taxing thing for me to do. If I tell you anything, you can guarantee I meant to say it. In the mean time, I will try to stop projecting my desire to connect with people onto those people. I will try to stop deluding myself into believing I have shared enough to warrant a feeling of intimacy. I will try to stop convincing others and myself that the public persona of my mentally ill self is not the whole story. I will try to stop idealizing budding interpersonal relationships, only to find myself disappointed for absolutely no reason.
Obviously, “try,” is the operative word there.
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